East Asia Compass

South Korea’s Strategic Move on GSOMIA

19 Nov, 2019    ·   5631

Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra examines the big picture narrative of South Korean foreign policy in light of the issue of termination of the South Korea-Japan intelligence-sharing agreement

The military intelligence-sharing pact between South Korea and Japan, called the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), was given ‘provisional’ extension by South Korea only hours before it was to expire on 23 November 2019. As per Article 21 of GSOMIA, any party can walk out of the agreement with a three-month notice, which, in this case, was given by South Korea to Japan on 22 August.

There have been several unsuccessful bilateral attempts between the South Koreans and the Japanese to resolve the issue involving meetings and delegation visits at the highest levels of government. The latest meeting was between South Korea’s Defence Minister, Jeong Kyeong-doo, and Japan’s Defence Minister, Taro Kono, in Bangkok on 17 November. However, in all these exchanges, both parties have just stated their respective positions without showing any sign of flexibility. The eleventh hours extension of the agreement does not mean any certainty of its survival.

It is important to consider the context, causes, and consequences of the termination of GSOMIA. Equally, it must be remembered that in the larger picture of bilateral security relations between Japan and South Korea, GSOMIA has a very small role to play. South Korea has similar agreements with around 30 countries, and most of these are largely inactive. In the case of the South Korea-Japan GSOMIA too, which was concluded in November 2016, there has reportedly been insignificant critical information-sharing so far. In fact, if bilateral political relations continue to be strained between South Korea and Japan, there is in any case very little chance of any substantial intelligence-sharing between them. However, if relations improve, such sharing can be possible even without GSOMIA. Additionally, both countries are part of the Trilateral Information Sharing Agreement (TISA) with the US, through which important intelligence is shared indirectly.

Thus, the real context of the issue of termination of the Agreement by South Korea are issues that are found outside of it, i.e., a deterioration of relations with Japan on concerns such as dealing with North Korea, comfort women, compensation to forced Korean labourers, and South Korea's removal from Japan's ‘white list’.

South Korea is unhappy with what it views as Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe's, spoiler role by insisting on a tough approach to North Korea, or by disproportionately highlighting the abductees’ issue, when South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration has made several attempts at engagement with Pyongyang and worked to bring US President Donald Trump’s administration on board. The Moon government is also not in agreement with what Japan considers the ‘final and conclusive’ agreement on comfort women on November 2015 and seeks its renegotiation.

The recent bilateral salvo began with a demand by courts in South Korea for compensation to Korean forced labourers, in October-November 2018. Japan says that such compensation was already provided to the South Korean government on the basis of the 1965 agreement. South Korea's argument is that the recent decisions on compensation came from the judiciary and that the South Korean government does not have a say in it. In fact, in June 2019, Seoul proposed to establish a joint fund to provide said compensation, but Tokyo rejected it. Japan’s removal of South Korea from its ‘white list’ on the grounds of some Japanese exports being leaked to Iran, UAE, and North Korea deepened the bilateral rift. The trade war between the two countries has escalated into public outrage in both Japan and South Korea, which has had a severe impact on their people-to-people exchanges as well. In this context, the Moon administration's decision to terminate GSOMIA was a strategic move to put it in a bargaining position with Japan.

Another strategic calculation of South Korea to consider moving out of the Agreement was directed towards the US. To continue with the GSOMIA, which is also in the US’s interest, Seoul would like Washington to consider the following: more flexibility in its position on North Korea; give up its demand of fully payment for the US troops stationed in South Korea; and, restraining Abe's aggressive approach towards South Korea.

South Korea’s decision to terminate the agreement was not a hasty one. Through it, Seoul sought to address what it viewed as unhelpful approaches adopted by the Japan and the US towards regional security. If South Korea does not have to terminate GSOMIA and its objectives are being achieved, it would be important success for South Korean foreign policy. Otherwise if South Korea is not able to have desired change in the Japan and the US approaches, the termination of GSOMIA would not make much difference.

Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra is Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, JNU, & Visiting Fellow, IPCS